Central Park and the Spatiality of Race

A few months ago I visited New York City for the first time. Prior to my arrival, my friends, temporary residents of Manhattan for the duration of their summer internships, asked me what places I would most like to visit. At the top of my list stood “✰Central Park✰,” underlined and starred as such to clearly convey to them this was a “must do.” I am happy to say that we walked, what felt like, the entirety of Central Park. I was in awe at the sight of this place that I had only read about in books and seen in movies and TV shows. 

However after reading an excerpt from Kia Corthron’s Moon and the Mars, I realized that I had in fact not seen Central Park in its entirety as I had first thought, and even more so, nor would I ever be able to. As the book explains and as was further discussed by Corthron herself in class on Wednesday, Central Park as we know it today keeps buried a dark secret beneath its long stretches of green grass. The tourist attraction actually arose from the destruction of Seneca Village, home to quite a few of Theo’s family members in the book. The New York Times reported that in the debate over where to place Cental Park uptown landowners and newspapers used racial slurs to paint Seneca Village as “a shantytown at risk of becoming the next Five Points,” another site in the book where Theo spends most of her time. Upon learning this, I was shocked– how could an event of this magnitude be completely lost in time? I argue that this question is tragically rather easy to answer. This is because Seneca Village, like Five Points, was a poor community that primarily consisted of Black people and Irish immigrants. It was not only a mindless choice to demolish this neighborhood but also to wipe it from history exactly because of who it was that occupied this space; to the wealthy Whites of Manhattan, Seneca Village’s occupants and their homes and livelihoods did not matter. Furthermore, despite the poverty and unstable living and working conditions Theo and her loved ones faced in both of these neighborhoods, these spaces provided its residents a form of protective relief from the racial discrimination they experienced in other parts of the city. Thus, the neighborhood was completely razed to the ground, and with it, a community, culture, economy, and network of people erased from history. With that being said, in focusing on these forgotten neighborhoods of New York City, Corthron’s novel highlights the racialization of space in determining who and where has value and who and where is disposable.

Communicating Humanity Through Color

I found the contrast between the colorful excerpts that describe the Dursley family and the rather reductive and simple descriptions of Cho Chang and Dean Thomas from the Harry Potter series to be quite eye-opening. This discussion regarding the use of color in writing left me wanting to further explore the racialization of language. How do we invoke race in writing and speaking? What are the consequences of the use of words like “black” on the people whom they describe and the English language itself? 

I found Richard Wright’s Native Son provides the perfect medium for exploring these questions. Throughout the book, Wright uses colors in multiple ways to describe race, physicality, and personality. For example, frustrated by Gus’ hesitancy to rob Blum’s store, Bigger calls his friend a “yellow black bastard” (28). Here, “yellow” is a derogatory reference to Gus’ lighter skin and his cowardice. This moment demonstrates the multiple meanings invoked by color. Beyond the use of color to denote physical appearance and character, Wright shows how racialized language links color to the notion of humanity. One way in which he accomplishes this is by bringing to the forefront our understanding of the word “black” not only to describe racial identity and skin color but also arouse many of the negative connotations and stereotypes associated with blackness, and, by extension, the race itself. Bessie describes Bigger as “plain black trouble” and herself as a “blind dumb black drunk fool” (230). She seems to have internalized the belief that her and Bigger’s blackness, and arguably the entire race to which they belong, is inextricably connected to these other disparaging adjectives. At the time of the trial, the Chicago Tribune notes that “though the Negro killer’s body does not seem compactly built… his skin is exceedingly black” (279). The paper suggests that despite the fact that Bigger lacks other features that might mark him as a criminal, his blackness is incriminatory enough. 

I argue that, through the use of racialized language, white people are afforded the complexity inherent to the use of multiple colors when describing them while nonwhites are reduced to nothing more than the single color of their skin. I am afraid that this is not a problem unique to writing– in our colloquial language, we too become authors who reinforce the normativity of whiteness when we refer to a white friend as “green-eyed brunette” while our nonwhite friend becomes “the tall Black girl.” It is hard to ignore the tragic irony that arises from this conclusion: whiteness, though defined as the absence of color, is often described the most colorfully, reinforcing the humanity of white people and denigrating that in blackness.

Baldwin on race, whiteness, and privilege

In the opening lines of “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies” James Baldwin writes, “there is in fact, no white community” (177). This reading being my first exposure to the content of this class, I was particularly struck and intrigued by this assertion. I wondered what Baldwin meant by “community” and how he could assuredly make, what at first seemed to me, such an immense statement. As I continued to read this piece, however, the meaning of this initial comment began to make more sense. In combination with his later point that “no one was white before he/she came to America,” I interpreted Baldwin’s argument here to be a reference to the notion that race is a social construction. In this sense, these initial remarks affirmed my understanding of race that I had come to in other classes, primarily in the “Political Psychology of Racism” with Professor Davis.

Yet, as I continued to read this piece and then “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin proceeded to challenge my interpretations of the opening statement of “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies,” race, privilege, and whiteness. Rather than simply presenting the idea that race is socially constructed, I now contend that Baldwin goes beyond this in suggesting the purpose behind defining race, and with that, identifies a need among White people to preserve the understanding that race represents inherent differences between black and white “communities.” To this point, Baldwin explains, “America became white… because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation” (178). He expands further that “it is the Black condition, and only that, which informs us concerning white people” (180). I believe that these points culminate movingly in “The Price of the Ticket” where Baldwin closes with “they require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own” (842). According to Baldwin, to become white is to rise while to become black is to sink, and, thus, race has no significance beyond the system of oppression in which it was created. This idea of an unearned elevation made possible merely be being white is a useful way for understanding not only race relations but more specifically white privilege. In fact, one of the first readings for my class with people incarcerated at Westville Correctional Facility as a part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program devoted a quite a few pages to Baldwin in discussing what it means to have privilege. The “price of the ticket” requires complete assimilation in exchange for belonging, and it also affords enduring privilege to whoever “pays” and their subsequent generations– manifest, for example, in the increased likelihood of the arrest of someone like one of my classmates at Westville who grew up in an over-policed neighborhood.